Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2009 Issue

Collector Bests State in Battle for $475,000 Document

Decofind

A similar old copy of the Declaration of Independence.


By Michael Stillman

In a major case pitting a collector against a state for ownership of old documents, victory has gone to the collector. Richard L. Adams of Virginia prevailed over the State of Maine in the Virginia Supreme Court for a copy of the Declaration of Independence he purchased for $475,000. It was certainly a major victory for Mr. Adams personally, but collectors owning potentially challengeable old government documents should not yet send out a collective sigh of relief. There could be less to this decision than meets the eye.

Here is a brief history of this long case, over 200 years in the making. In 1776, authorities in the State of Massachusetts authorized a private printer to print 250 copies of a radical document recently approved in Philadelphia - the Declaration of Independence. The order provided that these printings of the Declaration be read from the pulpits of local churches, and then handed over to the Town Clerk to transcribe into that town's official records. Nothing was said about what should happen to these printings after they were transcribed into the record.

The copy in question was read in the pulpits, and turned over to the Town Clerk of Pownalborough, Massachusetts (which is today the town of Wiscasset, Maine). On November 10, 1776, Town Clerk Edmund Bridge copied the Declaration on the town's records as required, and then did something with the original document. What he did with it is not certain. As the court noted, there is no definite sighting again for 219 years, when it was put up for auction in the sale of the estate of Anna Plumstead of Wiscasset. However, it is not all that hard to surmise what happened.

Some writing on the back of the document indicates it stayed with the town for at least a short while, and then the written evidence goes blank. However, Anna Plumstead was the daughter of Town Clerk Solomon Holbrook. Holbrook attained that position in the 1880s, and held it until he died in 1929. In this era, small New England towns did not have much in the way of government offices, so town clerks kept public documents at home. It would certainly be reasonable to believe that this item, and other old town documents found in Plumstead's house, arrived there via her father, either being transferred to her house for storage during Holbrook's life or after he died. Holbrook had at one time owned his daughter's house, though he never lived there.

In 1995, the Declaration was sold at a public auction of Plumstead's estate. It was purchased by Seth Kaller of Kaller Historical Documents for $77,000. In 2001, Kaller sold it to London bookseller Simon Finch for $390,000, who in turn sold it to Adams in 2002 for $475,000. Had the decision gone the other way, Adams could have been out as much as the full $475,000, depending on whether he could have collected any reimbursements from those who preceded him in the chain.

In reaching its decision, the Virginia Supreme Court noted first that possession presumes ownership. In other words, it is up to the party not possessing the item, in this case Maine, to show that it is the true owner, not the other way around. On the other hand, it also noted that public records belong to the government, a point favoring Maine. Then it proceeded to evaluate Maine's three arguments. The first two dealt with public records, and the third with simple conversion, or unlawful taking.

The first "public record" argument relied on the common law position that public records belong to the government. However, the standard common law definition describes a "public record" as one written by a public officer. This Declaration was not written by the Town Clerk, but printed by a private citizen. Therefore, the Court concluded, the only "public record" was the copying of this document by Town Clerk Bridge in the public register in 1776, not this printed original. Score one for collector Adams.

Next, the Court looked at the argument that this constitutes a "public record" under a statutory definition adopted by Maine in 1973. The lower court had ruled against Maine here on the grounds that the state had not produced evidence that this statute was intended to apply the definition retroactively to pre-1973 records. The Supreme Court then rejected Maine's appeal on this issue on a technicality, saying the state did not properly challenge this finding and so it would not reconsider the argument. Score two for Adams.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.
  • <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Adams (Richard). <i>Watership Down,</i> FIRST EDITION, author inscription on front free end paper, folded map tipped in, original boards, dust-jacket. £800 to £1,200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bowles (John). <i>Several Prospects of the Most…la Ville de Londres, avec des Remarques Historiques fort Succinctes, qui les Regardant,</i> 20 double page engraved plates only, of 23, 1724. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Auden (W.H.). <i>Our Hunting Fathers,</i> FIRST SEPARATE EDITION, 1 of 22 copies, COPY B OF 5 PRINTED ON NORMANDIE, original patterned wrappers, Cambridge, for Frederic Prokosch, 1935. £800 to £1200
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Barrie (J. M.) & Attwell (Mabel Lucie, illustrator). <i>Peter Pan & Wendy,</i> FIRST EDITION, 12 chromolithograph plates, publisher's blue cloth, original printed dust jacket, [c.1920]; and 3 others (4). £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bartolozzi (Francesco). Genius Calling Forth the Fine Arts to Adorn Manufactures and Commerce; Agriculture (Husbandry Aided by Arts and Commerce), glazed and framed. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> A collection of engraved caricatures, including Gillray ([James]) Tales of Wonder!, 1802; Rowlandson (Thomas) Sports, Smock Racing, 1811;Irish Jaunting Carr, 1814. £400 to £600
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Bennett (Charles H, illustrator). <i>Æsop’s Fables,</i> 1875; Buchanan (Robert). <i>Ballad Stories of the Affections,</i> [1866]; Douce (Francis), The Dance of Death, 1833. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Chinese Illustrations. A group of 6 Cantonese rice paper illustrations, depicting scenes of torture with different instruments, gouache, c.340 x 220mm, original wrapper boards preserved, [c. 1800]. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Dulac (Edmund). <i>The Queen of Romania, The Dreamer of Dreams,</i> 5 coloured plates, [1915]; and others illustrated by Edmund Dulac. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions: Summer Books. August 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Fronth (Per). Xingu Chronicles, the portfolio, comprising 30 plates, photogravues in colours, each signed, dated and titled in pencil, each numbered 10/35, on wove paper, 790 x 600 x 60mm, 1997. £300 to £400
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> Pasternak (Boris). <i>Doctor Zhivago,</i> FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, original red publisher’s cloth, pictorial dust jacket, 4to, Collins & Harvill Press, 1958. £200 to £300
    <b>Chiswick Auctions, Aug. 22:</b> 13 sepia photographs of visitors to the Thermes Nationaux d’Aix-les-Bains, c. 150 x 105mm, c.1890 (12). £300 to £400
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000

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